Iceland “the land of fire and ice” is a small island nation lying just south of the Arctic circle in the North Atlantic ocean. It has become a tourist hotbed as people come in droves to see its extraordinary landscape full of Volcanic activity, geothermal energy, glaciers, waterfalls and vast expanses of moon like rock fields. When the opportunity came to visit this Nordic country and the Glacier 360 mountain bike race which circumnavigates the countries 2nd biggest Glacier, we had to go!
The race itself is for pairs, which means you ride with a teammate and you get the time of the slowest member. Being classified as UCI S2 with International/Olympic ranking points, this drew a strong field of contenders, mostly from Scandinavia and Europe.
My partner, Andreas Hartmann, crashed the day we were supposed to fly out. I delayed my flight for 2 days and started searching for a replacement. Thankfully my buddy, Thomas Turner, (USA), stepped up at the last minute, with no preparation. He was on a plane within 48 hrs of the first call. We named our team “Wallace and the Hitman Gromit” and jumped into the adventures of this far off land.
Getting a taste for Iceland
From the moment we landed in Iceland it was rad as we soaked in the Nordic culture of its 330, 000 inhabitants. Navigating around a very touristy Reykjavik, (The Northern most capital city in the world) was more expensive then we’d imagined. It was $110 for a dorm bed in a hostel, $90 each to get our bikes and us on a 45 minute bus ride into town, and bottled water for 6 bucks a litre? Still cheaper then water at a Swiss gas station, but not by much!
Attacking the Glacier 360 in Iceland
The Glacier 360 is in its 2nd year and is a 3 day, 280 km race around the Langjökull Glacier, starting at the world-famous geysir in Haukadalur South Iceland. The finish was at the Gullfoss waterfall, known as the most beautiful waterfall in Europe.
Stage 1, nicknamed “The Black and White Miles”,was essentially a 90 km road race through a volcanic desert full of pitch black rock and sand. The course was undulating and pretty scenic as we raced by the immense ice fields to the right of us. We could see plumes from the geothermal fields across the landscape.
Seeing the lead teams from last year ditch their spare clothing at the start line, we did the same, but would regret this mid stage when the temperatures plummeted to + 2 degrees celsius, with strong frigid winds off the Glacier and a few spits of rain to make us really nervous.
Our hands froze solid and our jerseys and shorts didn’t protect us quite as much as we would’ve liked, but we made it to the finish line in a the lush glacial valley on the west side of the glacier.
Here we were treated to a warming tent full of food, highlighted by Iceland’s world famous skyr yogurt, which is made with three times the milk of most traditional yogurts. It is strained carefully to remove excess liquid, leaving a thick and creamy nutritious treat, high in protein and low in fat.
The terrain around camp resembled the high alpine in Canada with clear creeks, open meadows and a brisk chill in the air. There was an average looking hotel nearby so we checked the prices for a night, but at $600 we opted to stay in our tents. The parking lots were full of tourist vehicles which looked like they were ready for the moon. They had enormous tyres on small little vans, apparently to provide flotation up on the glaciers and across the rough terrain.
Stage 2 in Iceland
Stage 2 was labelled “The WaterWorld Climbs” as it took us across a couple of large unbridged rivers and over the rough Icelandic highland to the northwest of the glacier.
The riding was rad as it was rough and full of sharp volcanic stones which required a fair bit of agility to weave through at high speed as they didn’t look too friendly to our bike tyres! It was a solid 110km ride which ended at the highest point of the race, in the dead centre of the highlands at Hveravellir “Oasis”. This Oasis is a tourist camp formed around a hot spring on the oldest coast-to-coast road in Iceland.
There were huge glaciers to either side of camp, a hot geothermal field full of pools, a small steam vent and a hot spring with 100 degree Fahrenheit water coming in one end, and glacial water in the other.
The food up here, like everywhere in Iceland, was great, although paying upwards of $40 for a greasy burger, then seeing signs in the bathroom asking for $6.20 to use the toilet seemed a bit overkill. In theory it would cost $46.20 to eat a greasy burger, turn it into shit, and then get rid of it down the toilet. If there was ever good motivation to go on a diet this was it!
Dropping into stage 3
The first half of Stage 3 was one of the coolest bike rides I did all year. We climbed an old highland road through the alpine into Thjofadalir valley which is tucked away underneath huge glacier fields.
Dropping into the valley we followed an abandoned dirt path which apparently has only been used by horses and hikers for years. The 20 km trail was rough, rutted and braided in many spots which turned into a choose your own adventure type of race.
My teammate Thomas had been struggling a bit the previous few days, battling jet lag and having only 2 days to prepare, but he was on fire in this section as he wound his way through the boulder gardens with last year’s winning team and myself in tow.
The fun would eventually stop as we hit a long gravel road to the finish line with Thomas casing a big rock to get his 2nd flat tyre of the day and kill any momentum we had. That’s racing though, and once we had air back in the tyre we enjoyed the final 1.5 hr ride through the highlands to the Gullfoss waterfall.
Here we were reminded that Iceland is in a tourist boom as the trail to the waterfall was packed with thousands of tourists as busloads were being dropped off by the minute.
The post race party was in an open field beside another geothermal pool. A hot bbq was cooking up burgers and sausages for the riders before we were to be transferred back to Reykjaviik to start our journeys home. My younger cousin, Ali, was a volunteer at the race so we stuck around for the night to party with her and the rest of the volunteers. The plan in the morning was to hitchhike back to Reykjavik, but after helping clean up camp, the Glacier 360 organization offered to take us on a tour of the Southern Coast, with the volunteers. The highlight was a pretty cool glacial walk on one of the countries many large but retreating ice fields. It was a fitting cap to our short time in Iceland, which somehow felt like a month, with all that we experienced in the short 6 days we were there.
Here’s a few interesting facts on Iceland.
Between geothermal and hydropower, 100% of the countries electricity is from renewable resources and 80% of its primary energy is also renewable with fossil fuels making up the other 20%.
- Iceland’s capital Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city in the world.
- The only native mammal is the Arctic Fox.
- Geologically, Iceland is the youngest country in the world.
- I’d estimate that to travel like a normal person, it would cost $400 dollars a day in this tourist Mecca.
- Bike touring around the country with a tent and buying food at a grocery store could lower this coast to somewhere around $80 to $100 a day